Two years ago, photographer Kyle Cassidy set out to take stock of the 200 million or so guns in the United States — and their 120 million-odd owners. He decided he'd photograph any game gun-owner he could get to — "I didn't want the temptation of starting to cherry pick people for their opinions or because they had some huge gun collection," he wrote of the trip — and he wouldn't use guns as "the crutch of controversy" to support his images.
Cassidy's primary goal was to shoot good portraits, and to that aim he stayed true. The resulting book, "Armed America" (Krause Publications, 208 pages, hardback), chronicles his 15,000 miles of cross-country travels to meet and photograph gun owners, who all are asked to explain why they keep firearms:
"Because I can."
"... owning guns is a reflection of freedom in our country."
"I think everybody should have a gun. It levels the playing field."
"It seems like common sense now, after what happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina."
"Some people collect candle holders; I collect weapons."
The masterstroke of the book's concept is Cassidy's decision to photograph his subjects inside their homes (and, in a striking number of cases, with their pets).
Here, guns are not the object of superhero fantasies or menace; they are, by turns, decoration, mantelpieces or just another tool set on the coffee table beside the cell phone. For every hunter posing with a trophy deer, there's someone with a Glock on her bedspread, or an AK-47 leaning against his kitchen counter, or a .38 Special holstered in the side of his mattress.
ESPNOutdoors.com reached Cassidy — a 40-year-old news and fashion photographer who says he was "up-and-coming during the '80s hair metal scene" — on his cell phone in his hometown of Philadelphia, to shoot the breeze about Americans and their firearms.
EO: You managed to de-sexify guns. These people are living the most ordinary of lives. The gun is definitely a part of that life, but the gun doesn't seem, for most of them, central. It's just part of the fabric of who they are.
Cassidy: I realized when I was doing this that there are so many facets that make up somebody's life. There are many things that I am. I have a rocking chair, but I don't think about my rocking chair all the time. Some people may use their rocking chair every day. Mine's kind of incidental, and some of the gun owners are like that. Their gun is incidental, or it's something they use every day and something they were passionate about.
EO: What was your methodology in finding subjects, and getting the great access that you got?
Cassidy: It was mostly word of mouth. When I started doing the photos, I was posting them on the Web site and blogging about the experience.
People would see the images. I also gave people copies their images and told them they could do whatever they wanted with them. That turned out to be key, because they were sending them to their friends, they were posting them to their Web pages and things like that, so the word got out that I was working on this.
Also, I was meeting people very incidentally. I wasn't spending all my time at gun shows and things like that. At the beginning I was, but at the end, I would be at a party or something in Sheboygan, Wis., and I would be talking about what I was doing and someone would say, Oh, my brother's got a gun, you should talk to him.
Because of that, I didn't end up with as homogenous a group as I might have if I had just hung around gun shows and talked to people. I think that turned out to be very successful. More of the people I met were more incidental about their gun ownership than people who interact with them every single day, and there certainly are people in the book who are very involved with their firearms. Then there are people who aren't. There are people who had their guns in the attic for 15 years.
EO: Or the old man who had his grandfather's pistols made into a lamp, because he wasn't so impressed with them, when it came down to it.
Cassidy: Yeah, and he was very interesting, because he had changed his opinion over the years as he had gotten older. To me, he's more interesting than photographing another deer hunter or something like that, because it showed a real gradation of thought among people.
EO: You begin the book by describing meeting a guy who was working on "the gun vote," in an election. This turns out to be a curious way into the book, because we see this spectrum of people, and there's a thread that binds them, but they seem to come from every walk of life.
Cassidy: They're certainly not held together by a political party. I suspect — and I never thought of this before — but I suspect it's in some people's best interests on both sides of the gun debate to make it seem like one group of politicians likes guns and another group of politicians doesn't like guns.
But I don't really think that's true. There are plenty of Democrats in that book. And there are Libertarians in the book, and a socialist in the book and at least one anarchist in the book. Things that held them together are not always the core issues of a political party, and that was surprising to me, I think.
What I thought about guns was what I saw on television about guns, and it wasn't something that I had spent a lot of time thinking about. It was something that I accepted the conventional wisdom on. I'm not a social scientist and I haven't done surveys on this, but from my perspective now, it seems like that's a lot of spin from a lot of people.
EO: What had been your experience with guns before you got into the project?
Cassidy: I grew up in semi-rural surburban south Jersey. For a period of time, my father was an occasional hunter, but not very often. There were a couple of shotguns in the attic of the house. It seemed to me very dubious that I would bring that up when I was talking to people, like, "Yeah, I shot at a duck years ago. Let me photograph me with your gun."
But it gave me a belief that people weren't bad just because they had a gun, because I knew people who had had them. Then I moved to Philadelphia 15 years ago, and it seemed to me that there was no reason to have a gun in the city, because there's no place to shoot a gun in the city. So I had a singular idea of why people owned guns: You shoot at ducks with guns.
I realized there are many reasons why people who live in the city would own a gun, and so it's just that I spent a lot of time, and a lot of focused time, thinking about something I had never thought about before. I'm sure it's true with any subject. If you start thinking about bioethics or something like that, you'll come to realizations that you never had before.
EO: You'd hope so. Or else what would be the point of thinking about it?
Cassidy: Exactly, right.
EO: The access you got makes these people seem, by and large, very safe. We're in their home. It's a nonthreatening environment for the viewer. Were there situations in the reporting of this that you felt threatened or uncomfortable at all?
Cassidy: Toward the end of the book, it got extraordinarily popular, my Web site was getting like half a million hits a day, and people were checking on the blog, and I was getting all this e-mail from people. It was almost circuslike.
People would e-mail me, and they'd say, Hey, I see you're coming to [insert name of state], I don't have a gun but I'm having a party and I really want you to come to the party.
I happened to be in the Pacific Northwest on Thanksgiving, which is about as far from my family as I could possibly get, so people invited me to a Thanksgiving party there. So I photographed people during the day, and then when it got around dinnertime, nobody wanted me to take their picture, because they were all having dinner with their family.
So I went to this party these people were having, and they'd been drinking since noon, I think. When I got there, everybody was trashed. It was a strange experience for me. They were very excited that I was there. There was this shredded pile of turkey bones on the table, and they'd finished eating already.
During the course of whatever was going on afterwards, somebody said, "Hey, show Kyle your rattlesnake!" This was a guy who didn't have a gun, just this party he wanted me to come to. He had caught a rattlesnake on the side of the road a couple of months before, and he had it in an aquarium. He opens up the aquarium, and he gets a stick out to fish out the rattlesnake, and he says, "Take a picture of the rattlesnake!"
I realized that I was sort of facilitating this madness by being there with a camera. And I thought, That snake is going to bite him, and he's going to drop it, and then it's going to bite me. So the only bit of anxiety I experienced over my physical safety the entire time I was on this trip was that I was going to be bitten by a rattlesnake in Oregon.
But as you said, all these people invited me into their house, so I didn't think at any time that anybody was going to rob me or mug me. It was a great responsibility on me as a photographer. I realized these people were trusting me, and it would be very easy for a photographer go into somebody's house, take a picture of them and then to present them, I could have photographed people in a way that made them look ridiculous. They were giving me their trust, and I didn't want to betray that.
One thing that I was struck with was how normal-seeming it was to own a gun, by the end of it. But if you approach someone and say, "Hey, I want to take a picture of you with your gun," that can be, no pun intended, a loaded question.
For the first six months, nobody would talk to me. I got, "Bug off, Sarah Brady," everywhere I went. Here comes another quote-unquote objective journalist saying, "I want to do a piece on guns and let you tell your own story."
Even if it's true, it doesn't sound true, because gun owners feel like they've been burned by the media again and again. I live in Philadelphia, and we had 400 murders in the city last year. And every news story about guns that I can think of had to do with the murders. If you're a gun owner, you get paranoid when somebody comes to your house and says, I want to do a story about your gun. It was very difficult at first, but when I got even the very small portfolio together, it got a lot easier. By the end, there was no way I could possibly photograph all the people who volunteered.
EO: Having zig-zagged the country and met so many people with so many guns, what do you think is the ideological divide between people who own guns and people who would have nobody own guns? Is it an urban-rural divide? Is there a class divide?
Cassidy: As human beings we all look for easy solutions to difficult problems. And I think the answer is: it's probably extraordinarily complicated.
Geography has something to do with it. There were places like central Wisconsin where everybody had a gun. Regardless of who you voted for, you had a gun. The first day of deer season is a state holiday, effectively. And when I was talking to people in places like that, nobody thought there was anything weird about it at all: "Oh, sure, you can take a picture of me and my gun. Let's get it out here."
Then there were other places, like if I were to go door-to-door in my neighborhood, which is a yuppie-infested, gentrified area of west Philadelphia, people would think I was nuts. Even if they did have a gun, they wouldn't want to talk about it, because they wouldn't want their neighbors to know they were part of a group you're not supposed to belong to here.
There was a guy in California I really wanted to photograph. He eventually declined. He said, "It's like you're asking me to pose with my pornography collection." It was something he just didn't want to be known as owning, even though he certainly did enjoy his firearm collection.
Having parents who had guns was a big factor, too. Another big factor, especially in my city, is: there's a group of people who have had their lives dramatically, drastically changed by guns people who live in neighborhoods where drug dealers have gun fights, and children are getting shot accidentally. People like this have their lives very significantly impacted, and other people who own guns go, "Wait, that wasn't me, why do you want to take my gun away?" There are several minds who find it difficult to look at the world from the other person's perspective.
EO: Was there ever a point when you decided to buy a gun?
Cassidy: I did about six months into it. I realized that nobody was talking to me. I said, You know, it would probably be a lot better if I were at a shooting range as a shooter instead of as a photographer.
So I bought this awesome target pistol. I'm very self-competitive, and I thought, if I'm going to do this, I want it to be something I can chart my progress at. I started practicing like I was trying out for the Olympics. Then when I talked to people, they'd say, here's the guy who was here last week and the week before. And I'd mention that I was a photographer. I realized I could very easily burn my bridges and just not be welcome there, so for a long time I didn't talk about photography or about the gun project. That really helped me ramp up the first set of pictures and get the portfolio started.
I actually had a really good time. I have my first target, and the last target I shot is when I took an NPR reporter out, because she wanted to go. My first target has a pattern maybe three or four times, maybe five times as big as my last one. Although I haven't been in a while, towards the end I'm consistently able to put 10 bullets into a hole the size of a quarter from 30 feet.